Freedom of speech is only ok when I do it – the hypocrisy of the free speech brigade

Freedom of speech isn’t straight forward when some people have more freedoms than others. Maya Jones breaks down the hypocrisy at the heart of the student free speech debate championed by largely white male undergrads. 

‘No-platforming’, ‘censorship’, ‘free speech’: these words could sum up my time at university. Students wait, locked in a cold-war, ready to fight for their freedom – from the NUS. The media jumps on the bandwagon, facilitating a threatening image of liberal millennials locked away in their own safe spaces. Everyone is waiting for the next scandal to prove that Feminists Just Hate Free Speech. Countless articles cry censorship; the irony lost on their overwhelmingly privileged writers. We couldn’t silence you if we tried.

University feminism has found itself the latest victim of the free speech brigade. Thanks to a few high profile cases, it would seem that the main aim of feminist societies is to no-platform. The reality is somewhat less newsworthy because the practise is rarely enacted.

Nevertheless, journalists on the left and right have united in their depiction of the angry, intolerant, student feminist. It was the icing on the cake when second-wave feminists joined the fight following objections to Germaine Greer’s talk at Cardiff University. It seems student feminists are betraying the sisterhood simply by suggesting that trans-exclusionary feminism has no place in a modern, intersectional movement. The result: we sit at home opening the latest abusive message from a middle-aged man in Texas, powerless to the feminist-hating storm of the internet.

Sometimes it’s easier to laugh. At journalists who haven’t stepped foot in a university for twenty years but presume to know everything about student life. At exclusionary feminists who use this craze as a means to push their own agendas. At fellow students who despise FemSoc without ever having attended a meeting. And at all those boys who think they know what’s good for feminism.

Predictably, this reaction often leads to the accusation that feminists are shying away from the debate. We are not too scared to debate; we are just tired because it takes up vital energy explaining feminism again and again to every man that flirts with the alt-right. It should not be our job to educate. Feminism recognises that everyone has a responsibility to educate themselves on how their privilege disenfranchises others. This is why I am a firm believer that men play an important role in feminism: men must educate themselves and their fellow peers. 

When it comes to no-platforming, it needs to be reiterated that political correctness and free speech are not mutually exclusive. Being against racism, homophobia, sexism and transphobia does not make one against free speech. Allowing these prejudices to flourish under the disguise of free speech only further normalises xenophobia and creates an environment in which free speech is limited to a privileged few. No-platforming does not take away an individual’s platform in society but it does reassure affected students and fight against this normalisation. I believe that universities should encourage opposing opinions; I also believe that universities should not tolerate prejudice.

The biggest irony in this debate is that free speech includes the right to anger. It is fundamentally hypocritical to argue so vehemently for free speech to extend to hate speech yet oppose those who respond angrily to controversial speakers. Anger may not be the most constructive or articulate reaction, but it is still a valid one. Dismissing a feminist response as such only plays into the angry feminist trope that we know all too well.

Being an active member of the feminist society has undoubtedly been my favourite part of university. But I will not miss the accompanying assumption that this means I want to censor everything. Students should be incensed by the views that feminist societies call out instead of pandering to this obsession and defending what they themselves disagree with in the name of free speech.

Illustration by Emily Godbold. This article was originally printed in Issue 12.

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